Just when you thought it was safe to turn your back on political email skirmishes, Ready for Ron (a/k/a RFR and R4R) challenges the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) in Federal court over not being allowed to give a list chock full of email addresses to a candidate. Now before you get excited to imagine that the FEC and the Court cared even a tiny bit about the privacy of the email addresses, they didn’t. What they cared about, and what the FEC opinion letter and subsequent case turned on, is the value of an email address or, more precisely, the value of a list of contact information of 200,000 people, including email addresses. And both the FEC and the Court cared enough to hold that the value of that list exceeds the maximum allowed contribution to a candidate by a single entity.
The facts are actually pretty straight forward. In May of 2022, Ready for Ron registered as a “hybrid,
nonconnected, unauthorized political committee” whose purpose was to support Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a bid for the Republican nomination. In that context, RFR created what it calls a “petition”* for people to “sign” if they wished to encourage Governor DeSantis to run, and then blitzed media and contact lists they had purchased, driving people to their website to sign the “petition”.
*Even the Court puts ‘petition’ in quotes, as the Ready for Ron site simply has a form which collects your name, email address, and phone number on its home page saying “Add your endorsement”. In fact, the Court very clearly calls it a contact list, saying “First, the “petition” or, more precisely, the contact information that RFR plans to include — constitutes a contact list that is a “thing of value” worth more than $2,900 (the then-applicable limit).”
In September of 2022 Ready for Ron requested an opinion from the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), the gist of which was “We anticipate gathering 58,000 signatures from our petition drive. Can we give this list of contacts to Governor DeSantis without running afoul of the maximum contribution limit of $2900 if he is a candidate? What about before he is a candidate but is ‘testing the waters’?” (‘Testing the waters’ is an actual defined term under election law, you can read about that here.)
Conveniently, RFR put the value of a single contact’s information at 5 cents; 58,000 * .05 = $2900, funny how that math works out.
The only problem was that Ready for Ron also whined to the FEC that they had already aired “approximately 86 television advertisements promoting the petition, including on Fox News and other channels” as well as running online advertisements with a total of 318,779 impressions.” And, as the FEC found, “R4R plans to continue to promote the petition through television and online advertisements, as well as “through radio, podcast, Skywriting, direct mail, billboards, blimps, and other media,” and estimates that it will spend an average of $25,000-$50,000 per week on advertisements in support of the petition through 2024.”
Pretty clearly this “petition” was costing Ready for Ron way more than $2900. Meaning that the (let’s call a spade a spade) contact list already had a value of way more than $2900.
So the FEC said, in essence, “No, you can’t contribute a contact list with a value of more than $2900 to either a candidate, or to someone who is ‘testing the waters’.” And in point of fact, this is very well-established election law, going back to 1974, when the Federal Election Campaign Act was amended to limit contributions by individuals, parties, and PACs. (You can read the actual Federal Elections Commission advisory opinion letter to Ready for Ron here.)
But Ready for Ron didn’t like this answer, so they sued the Federal Elections Commission in Federal court, claiming that a) it violated their 1st Amendment rights in not allowing them to present the “petition” to Governor DeSantis, and that b) basically everything about the FEC’s opinion was wrong, violated RFR’s rights, and, yeah, it was just wrong.
The bottom line here is that the Court found that, by the time that the case came before the Court, Ready for Ron had actually “spent more than $1 million soliciting and gathering signatures and contact information from over 200,000 people who have declared themselves “Ready for Ron,” and that “RFR would like to deliver the “petition” that it has created to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, along with a letter urging him to become a candidate for the Republican nomination for President in the 2024 election,” and that of course giving a candidate, or someone who is ‘testing the waters’ to see if they may have a viable candidacy, a contact list that had cost RFR more than a million dollars to compile far exceeded the allowable limits. As to Ready for Ron’s claims of violation of their First Amendment rights, and other claims, the Court roundly rejected all of their claims, and denied all of Ready for Ron’s motions.